California has begun a new era of political theater that has caught the eye of both national parties as the decadelong drought of competitive Congressional elections comes to a close.
Republicans could face a loss of as many as six seats because of the state's new independent redistricting process, according to some educated estimates. Democrats currently hold a 34-19 majority in the delegation.
But despite unfavorable lines, the National Republican Congressional Committee sees six legitimate opportunities to win a Democratic-held or open seat, which would keep its losses in the Golden State to a minimum.
The fact that California House races are even being discussed more than a year before the elections is a drastic change from the past 10 years, when district lines were drawn by partisans with the goal of incumbent retention. Because the state's independent commission could not take incumbent safety into account, combined with the increase in Latino population and onslaught of state legislators running for higher office, the state's Congressional delegation could see dramatic turnover.
For Democrats, the map moved in their favor and could provide one-fifth of the 25 seats the party needs to flip to take back the majority. For the NRCC, which is looking to stem the redistricting-caused losses in California, the change means finally paying closer attention to a state that could feature more competitive races than any other.
"There's some real opportunities for us to win some seats that have been ignored politically for so long at the Congressional level," NRCC Political Director Mike Shields told Roll Call.
The NRCC's target list starts with Rep. Lois Capps (D), whose infamous "Ribbon of Shame" gerrymandered district that traverses 200 miles along the Pacific is now far less Democratic and considered swing territory. The leading Republican to take her on in the newly drawn 24th district is former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who raised almost $300,000 in the second quarter and loaned himself $250,000.
Two other high-priority districts are the Central Valley 16th and 21st, where it's still unclear which incumbents will be running. Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa live in the 16th, but Costa lives near the 21st and could run there. However, Cardoza remains atop the retirement-watch list, and under that scenario, Costa would undoubtedly run in the 16th, which is safer.
Either way, the NRCC believes both seats are vulnerable to takeover.
"The Costa and Cardoza seats are seats that we feel like we missed last time," Shields said. "I think they got a little lucky with so many targets across the country — they flew under the radar. That's not going to happen this cycle."
Republicans already have a candidate in the 21st in Assemblyman David Valadao. Should Cardoza retire and Costa run in the 16th, Valadao could be matched up with highly touted Democratic state Sen. Michael Rubio.
The NRCC also is targeting Rep. Jerry McNerney in the new 9th district and Rep. John Garamendi in the new 3rd district, which got considerably more competitive.
McNerney was the only successful California challenger in the past decade to flip a seat's party control, defeating former Rep. Richard Pombo in 2006. His new district is actually slightly more friendly than his current one, but the NRCC is enthusiastic about its recruit there — 24-year-old law student Ricky Gill, who had raised $446,000 through June 30.
Should it get the right candidates and should the political landscape move further in the GOP's favor, Shields said the NRCC will take a look at the district of Rep. Loretta Sanchez and the open 41st district, which Democrats are also targeting.
California Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell cited several districts his party will be looking to pick up next year. They include: Rep. Dan Lungren's Sacramento-area 7th district; freshman Rep. Jeff Denham's 10th district; the 25th district, in which GOP Reps. Buck McKeon and Elton Gallegly live; the open 26th district in Ventura County; Rep. Mary Bono Mack's 36th district; Rep. Darrell Issa's 49th district; and the 52nd district, where Rep. Brian Bilbray is running.
The 32nd district, where Rep. David Dreier (R) lives but is unlikely to run, leans Democratic and is a likely Democratic pickup.
Some of the GOP districts already include top Democratic recruits, including the well-financed Ami Bera, who is challenging Lungren for the second cycle in a row. Lungren beat Bera by 7 points in a good year for the GOP.
To avoid a Member-vs.-Member race in the 30th district, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) has said Rep. Brad Sherman (D) should move over to the neighboring 26th, which is likely swing territory.
However, Sherman has given no indication that he will do that to end his battle with Rep. Howard Berman (D). And he could possibly face another incumbent in the 26th, with Gallegly possibly running in that district as well.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Amber Moon kept to the national talking points but said redistricting has presented Democrats with "new opportunities" to unseat GOP incumbents.
Still, the NRCC's Shields is optimistic: "The idea that we would be able to go there and play offense is something we're excited about."
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